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Constance Elizabeth Harker (1875–1964)

by K. E. Gill

This article was published:

Constance Elizabeth Harker (1875-1964), headmistress, was born on 1 April 1875 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest child of John Harker, manufacturer, and his wife Priscilla Matilda, née Boase, both Australian-born. Constance attended private schools until the family moved to Petersham, Sydney, where she entered Normanhurst school, Ashfield. Matriculating at 16, she became one of the four original members of the Women's College, University of Sydney. Her B.A. (1895) included first-class honours in English and history.

After teaching at Kambala, Bellevue Hill, Constance was senior English and classics mistress at Presbyterian Ladies' College, Croydon, where she met her future co-principal Marjorie Kate Jarrett. She studied languages and educational methods in England, France and Germany in 1905-08, then became acting head of the Brisbane High School for Girls with an option to buy it from the founder Miss Fewings. She and Miss Jarrett purchased the school in 1909 and began their long partnership as co-principals. They gained little income from the school: teacher-proprietors could not hope to finance a modern expanding school, especially one which provided boarding facilities. In 1918 they transferred ownership to the newly formed Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association while retaining their principalship. In 1920 the school moved from Wickham Terrace to Vulture Street, South Brisbane, took the name Somerville House and opened with an enrolment of 225 pupils. The boarding-school occupied Cumbooquepa, former home of Thomas Blacket Stephens. Over the next two decades the school carried out a major building programme and established a high reputation.

Constance Harker occupies an illustrious position in the annals of education in Queensland. The academic achievements of Somerville House during her co-principalship were due largely to her inspired teaching and supervision of class work. She widened the interests of her pupils by encouraging visitors who were authorities on literature, music, art and international affairs. She fostered ideals of good citizenship and social service, and during World War I she formed the first school branch of the Red Cross Society in Queensland. The school subsequently had branches of the Australian Student Christian Movement and the League of Nations Union, two companies of Girl Guides, and a Cot Fund which supported the ill and disabled. The Queensland Girls' Secondary Schools' Sports Association, initiated by her, still functions. Constance herself, when time permitted, transcribed for the Braille-Writers' Association.

She retired in 1931 but continued to live at the boarding school until Miss Jarrett's retirement in 1940. The two ladies frequently made camping expeditions to the Lamington Plateau and elsewhere and were enthusiasts for wild life; they made a motor trip to the Northern Territory in 1938. After Miss Jarrett's death in Sydney in 1944, Constance lived at Toowoomba. In 1963 she was appointed M.B.E.; the governor of Queensland travelled to Toowoomba especially to perform the investiture. She died on 16 December 1964 in Wesley Hospital, Toowoomba.

Miss Harker has been remembered by the Women's College, Sydney, where a room bears her name. At Somerville House in 1934 she laid the foundation stone of the library building, a gift of the old girls' association to commemorate the work of the two principals. Harker Hall, the school auditorium, also honours her.

Select Bibliography

  • P. G. Freeman, History of Somerville House (Brisb, 1949)
  • R. Goodman, Secondary Education in Queensland, 1860-1960 (Canb, 1968)
  • Somerville House Magazine, 1963
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 17 Dec 1964.

Citation details

K. E. Gill, 'Harker, Constance Elizabeth (1875–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 November 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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